Review: Toxic love triangle fuels ‘Challengers’

Zendaya and Mike Faist in Challengers (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Tennis is an extended metaphor for the highly toxic, sexually charged relationships at the core of director Luca Guadagnino’s latest film, “Challengers.”

Stylishly and kinetically shot, the film focuses on the destructive nature of the “friendships,” romantic entanglements and relationships, and rivalries of three tennis players.

The movie is implicitly a melodrama, but the film is so superbly directed by Luca Guadagnino and shot by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the film is never boring even though the basic plot settles firmly in soap opera territory.

The film is craftily told by Guadagnino in a nonlinear style that requires and rewards your attention as the three main characters war emotionally with each other off the court and two of them on it. The film deftly volleys back and forth with flashbacks to tell and enhance the drama of what could have been a fairly mundane story in lesser hands.

The camera work in this film is imaginative, inventive, and almost over-the-top, but the energy generated by the creative synergy of Guadagnino and Mukdeeprom’s filmmaking lends support to the emotional upheaval of the story. It’s the most creative cinematic sports camera-work in recent memory, and it’s key in telling this story.

In the golden-age of Hollywood, it was opined when partners danced on film it was a metaphor for making love. In this film, while there is onscreen foreplay, the tennis stands sexual combat.

The movie features a near entrancing techno/industrial score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that throbs and beats, giving the movie a thumping feel of a 1990s nightclub that is somehow appealing set against Guadagnino’s images. Usually such sound is off-putting to me, but it syncs well with the feverish context of the story.

The film is a showpiece for rising superstar Zendaya, who also produced the film with Amy Pascal. We haven’t yet reached the month of May, but this is Zendaya’s second standout performance of the year, along with her key supporting role in “Dune: Part Two.”

She’s a gifted non-verbal communicator. You can read her emotions on her face. It’s thrilling to watch her captivate and dominate a scene with just her facial expressions.

She plays Toshi, a fantastic tennis star on the rise who catches the eye of two male competitors Patrick (Josh O’Connor) and Art (Mike Faist), who have a rivalry that begins somewhat friendly but ends up more than contentious.

Both male leads are strong, but O’Connor has the flashier role as the roguish Patrick. This could be a star-making role for O’Connor, who imbues his character with a distinct appeal despite his scummy ways.

Faist is effective as the steadfast Art, who is attempting to resuscitate his career after a string of losses. In the present, he is married to Toshi, but knows that she still harbors a thing for Patrick and that fosters resentment between the two.

“Challengers” is a highly stylized and solidly entertaining movie. It’s decidedly steamy, but it does have an ick factor to it. Like after a summer tennis match, you might feel like showering off after watching it.

(R) 2 hr. 11 min.
Grade: B

New in Local Theaters – April 26, 2024

  • Unsung Hero (PG) 1 hr. 52 min. (trailer)
    AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne
  • Boy Kills World (R) 1 hr. 51 min. (trailer)
    AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle
  • Challengers (R) 2 hr. 11 min. (trailer)
    AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight
  • We Grown Now (PG) 1 hr. 34 min. (trailer)
    AMC Fiesta Square
  • The Mummy — 25th Anniversary (PG-13) 2 hr. 5 min. (trailer)
    Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle Hills
  • Alien — 45th Anniversary (R) 2 hr. 5 min. (trailer)
    AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle Hills

Classic Corner — Alien

Sigourney Weaver in Alien (Twentieth Century Fox

In space, no one can hear you scream. What a chilling tag line for one of the best science-fiction/horror movies ever made, director Ridley Scott’s “Alien.”

I was not old enough to see the R-rated “Alien” in 1979, but my 18-year-old babysitter bought me a ticket and dragged me to see it, anyway.

The movie scared me more than any movie I had ever seen up to that point, with only the PG-rated “Jaws,” which I saw four years earlier, coming close.

While “Jaws” remains one my all-time favorite movies, it wasn’t as unrelentingly tense or scary to me as “Alien,” which absolutely riveted me to my seat from the first time I saw the face-hugger, the chest-bursting worm, and finally the gigantic, acidic-saliva dripping behemoth that Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) finally incinerates after it decimated the rest of the crew of the spacecraft “Nostromo.”

Today the creatures from the film aren’t cuddly, but they aren’t as eye-poppingly scary to me as they were back in 1979.

The film has grown from being a hit at the box office into a full-fledged franchise, inspiring everything from toys and video games to comics and all other manner of licensed merchandise. Most of the thrills and chills are gone.

However at its debut, no one had ever seen a creature like the Alien. It was a fantastic masterpiece of a villain because throughout the course of the film, it continued to morph into something bigger, uglier, and more fantastic each time we encountered it.

Horror fans had all seen werewolf transformations before, but we never had seen a monster grow increasingly more threatening and violent as a movie progressed. Just when you thought you had a grip on it, it became even more grotesque and dangerous.

Weaver in her first lead role was a great, resourceful heroine whom you feared for but still believed capable of besting the beast with her will and wits.

Just as the film made Weaver a star, it vaulted Scott into being a major director, who later gave us such classics as “Blade Runner,” “Thelma & Louise,” “Gladiator, and “The Martian.”

Though the movie is set in space, Scott shot it like a haunted-house flick and left audiences gasping.

The creatures may have lost some of their fear factor over the years, but I’d argue the movie remains almost as compelling and thrilling as it did decades ago. It’s a true horror classic that has stood the test of time unlike most films of its ilk.

That’s a testament to Scott’s nightmare vision and the star-making performance he coaxed from Weaver.

Even though the movie is 45 years old, I’d argue there’s not a better, more effective film in theaters today than 1979’s “Alien.”

The re-release is playing at the Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle Hills and AMC Fiesta Square theaters.